Verdict Destroys Hopes for the Rule of Law, Independent Courts, Protection of Property Rights and Government Anti-Corruption Drive in Russia
Defense Slams “Charade of Justice”
New York, December 27, 2010 – Today a Moscow court found Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev guilty of embezzling a staggering two thirds of the total production of the Yukos Oil Company over a six-year period. The conviction in this 22-month mock judicial process confirms the subservience of the judicial system in Russia to corrupt officials who continue to view Khodorkovsky as a threat and who seek to prevent his scheduled release in 2011. Khodorkovsky is already serving an 8-year sentence, handed down in 2005, but dating from his arrest in 2003. Had he been found not guilty he would have been released in 2011, a few months before Russia’s 2012 presidential elections. The new unlawful prison term will be announced either this week or shortly after the Khamovnichesky Court reconvenes from holidays in mid-January. Prosecutors have asked for 14-year sentences for Khodorkovsky and Lebedev.
According to lead defense lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant: “The trial was a charade of justice, the charges were absolutely false, but I fear the sentencing will be very real.”
The behavior of the prosecutors and of the judge turned the trial into a fiasco. Despite filling time by reading from a 188-volume case file, and parading numerous witnesses into court, prosecutors were unable (and did not even try) to prove how it was possible that Yukos covered its operating costs, invested heavily in capital expenditures and acquisitions and paid taxes and dividends when the entire oil production of Yukos over a six-year period was being stolen, as alleged in the indictment. At the end of the trial, prosecutors further confused their case when they attempted to save face by reducing the volume of oil allegedly stolen by approximately one third.
“This verdict diminishes Russia’s legitimacy in the world stage and signals to policy makers and investors that Russia’s political leaders apply the law as they see fit,” said Pavel Ivlev, former corporate counsel to Khodorkovsky.
The authorities misleadingly attempted to portray the process as legitimate. The defendants were permitted to speak in court almost without restrictions, but the judge blocked their lawyers from introducing exculpatory documentary evidence and refused to hear many witnesses and experts. Illusions of adversarial process and legitimacy were created by allowing the defense to file motions and objections to serious procedural violations, however the judge routinely quashed the vast majority of these motions and failed to react to the objections. The defense and the defendants persisted to the end in doing anything they could to document the full extent of the mistrial, and have publicly released online all submissions rejected by the court.
The verdict in this trial is based on patently false allegations that are incompatible with the first case against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev and with the enormous tax claims that bankrupted Yukos to the benefit of persons controlling state-run Rosneft. The conviction is also impossible to reconcile with numerous decisions of Russian courts that have recognized the tax claims against Yukos. Today’s ruling also contradicts Russia’s official position as it attempts to defend its treatment of Khodorkovsky, Lebedev and Yukos before the European Court of Human Rights. There, the Russian authorities allege that it was lawful to impose grossly punitive taxes on proceeds from the sale of oil owned, sold and accounted for by Yukos. On the other hand, in the Khamovnichesky Court the prosecutors allege on behalf of the Russian Federation that the same oil was stolen from the company by Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, and therefore could not have been sold by Yukos. The court supported the slanderous allegations of oil theft despite the fact that the so-called “injured parties”, production subsidiaries of Yukos, received not only full compensation for their production costs but also 2 billion USD profits from sales.
Politically it is notable that in the most high-profile trial in Russia, closely-watched by the public and media all over the world, the court could so openly ignore applicable procedural and substantive laws as well as basic notions of fairness. This is testament to the power of those corrupt officials who zealously seek to justify their seizure, control and ownership of Yukos assets and to isolate Khodorkovsky and Lebedev from Russia’s business and public spheres – and to keep them in jail as long as possible to achieve these goals. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s most recent (but far from the first) public intervention in the case and undisguised pressure on the court came in televised remarks on December 16, 2010, one day after a last-minute postponement of the reading of the verdict to December 27, 2010. With the judge still deliberating on the case, the Prime Minister directly mentioned the current charges and stated that Khodorkovsky’s guilt had been proven in court and that he must stay in jail.
The trial and its verdict are an open challenge – and indeed an affront – to President Dmitry Medvedev’s highly-publicized efforts to ensure the rule of law and to reform Russia’s criminal justice system and to fight government corruption. If upheld on appeal, this verdict shall be a triumph of corrupt officials controlling Russia’s law enforcement and judicial bodies, and a setback for an entire country that aspires yet continually fails to modernize.